An old, obscure Western that pulsates with authenticity (in more ways than one)
While “The Sundowners” is a small, obscure Western (and shouldn't be confused with the 1960 film about Australian sheep drovers), it’s one of my favorites because of its interesting characters, engaging writing and palpable realism. As far as the latter goes, it was actually shot in the Texas panhandle, rather than Arizona or Southern Cal like too many old Westerns.
Someone criticized the movie on the grounds that he “had a hard time figuring who was good and who was bad,” which illustrates another element of realism: The characters have shades of grey rather than being wholly black or white. Even the main protagonist, Tom Cloud (Robert Sterling), who represents wisdom and goodness, reveals an imprudent side, which I’m not going to give away. Of course the people involved in the rustling ring are definitely shady, albeit secretly. The father of the ringleader, however, isn’t corrupt and didn't know what his son was doing, although he might have suspected and turned a blind eye.
Kid Wichita (Robert Preston), however, is somewhere in between black and white, mainly due to his dubious past and the leery way Tom regards his return. Wichita amusingly says a few times: "From Amarillo to Gee Whit, nobody never proved a thing on me – 'cept twice," which means he committed at least two actual crimes in the past and obviously more.
In the current events of the movie, though, I didn't see Wichita do anything wrong. All he does is help rid the county of a rustling ring. There are several references to Wichita murdering someone but, actually, he caught the individual scheming and didn't shoot until the guy went for his gun. That's not murder; it's self-defense. The same thing happens in another situation. Personally, I was all for Wichita cleaning up the county of the rustling trash. Maybe Wichita deserves to die for his past sins, but not for anything he does in this movie.
Kid Wichita, by the way, is an excellent example of a classic antihero before antiheroes came into vogue with Leone’s (overrated) spaghetti Westerns in the mid-60s. Wichita is a bold gunslinger who oozes confidence and la Joie de vivre (French for “the joy of living”), not to mention recognizes and fearlessly confronts true corruption -- evil -- which is usually hidden. The boy (Barrymore) naturally starts to look up to Wichita and emulates him. This brings to mind the best succinct line: “Why sure!”
Jack Elam is featured in a peripheral role as an unloving husband in one of his first films at the age of 29 (during shooting). Most people understandably view Elam as a likable human-looking gargoyle so it’s interesting to see him as a relatively good-looking young man. On the female front Cathy Downs (the titular character in 1946’ “My Darling Clementine”) has a pretty meaty part as Elam’s hot redhead wife, who naturally looks for romance elsewhere.